Prophethood has been witnessed all over the world. It is a universal phenomenon. The Quran recognizes this, saying that it only mentions a small group of the countless prophets that existed in other times and other lands.
But who exactly were the prophets? And what is the nature of this “revelation” from God they claimed to receive? In this chapter of his book, Major Themes of the Quran, Fazlur Rahman discusses three things: prophets in general, Prophet Muhammad in particular, and the nature of revelation.
Prophets in General
“[We have sent] apostles who brought good news to mankind and warned them…” (4:165)
The prophets were extraordinary men (and women, according to some) who were extremely sensitive to the injustices of the world. They received Divine Messages that shook people from passively accepting injustice into actively rejecting it in their hearts and surroundings. They were fully human, and made mistakes. But their average conduct was so good that they serve as worthy models for humans to follow.
According to the Quran, although the Messages sent to each of the prophets were meant for the specific communities they lived in, they were also meant for humanity as a whole. All of the prophets preached the same general message: that there is One God who alone should be served, worshiped, loved and feared. Everything else in the world is a servant of that One God, and under the power of His law and command.
“Even so did We inspire you with a spirit of Our Word; you did not know before this what the Book is, nor Faith – We have made it a Light whereby We guide whomsoever We will.” (42:52)
And who is Muhammad among the world’s prophets? According to the Quran, he is the last human to directly receive a Message from God – making him the “Seal of the Prophets.” His Message is the same as the Messages of the other prophets, but it is the Final Message, and goes out to all of humanity for the rest of time.
Muhammad was a shy and quiet man. He used to reflect on the injustices of his society, but preferred to meditate on those injustices in a mountain cave instead of involve himself in the politics of his people. That’s why he and his contemporaries were shocked that God’s Revelation came down on him of all people. He never expected it. In fact, a lot of times he found it a very heavy burden to carry.
Muhammad’s life, after first receiving God’s Revelation, became pretty tough. He was suddenly pushed into actively denouncing the injustices of society, which were based on worshipping false gods (like the idols that represented money and power) instead of the One God of the whole universe. Because this threatened the position of many powerful people in Meccan society, Muhammad and his small band of early followers were persecuted. Muhammad himself was accused by the high members of society of being crazy or possessed by an evil spirit. But through his reputation as “The Trustworthy One” (a title he’d earned among his people before becoming a prophet), his patience and his perseverance, Muhammad was able to eventually show the Arabs the Message God had sent him.
The Nature of Revelation
“Do they say the he [Muhammad] has forged [the Quran] as a lie upon God? If God wills, He shall seal up your heart [so that there will be no more Revelation].” (42:24)
In reading the Quran, it becomes clear the revelation is both internal to and separate from the prophet it is revealed to. What does this mean, exactly?
The Quran was internal to Muhammad because even though God sent it down from heaven, He sent it into Muhammad’s heart. And only after it came from Muhammad’s heart was it something that all humans could understand. Here, the Meccans’ accusation that Muhammad was possessed by an evil spirit is an interesting one. Because although the Quran strongly denies this, it does say that a “Spirit” (often called Gabriel) was involved in transporting the Message from God to the Prophet’s heart. It seems that God put this Spirit in Muhammad’s heart, and then Muhammad spoke the Quran in moments when he was inspired by this Spirit.
But just because the Quran came from Muhammad’s heart and lips doesn’t mean it’s from Muhammad. As the Message of God, the Quran is also separate from him, taking on its own “personality” and unfolding itself in a way that Muhammad sometimes did not like. In moments when he was weak, the Quran scolded Muhammad for not having faith in the Almighty. And at times when Muhammad wanted to make compromises with the unbelieving Meccans, the Quran pushed him to be uncompromising in his push for justice.
It was the powerful and overwhelming force of this Revelation that turned one of the most corrupt and unjust societies into a unique model of social goodness and justice. And it is this same Revelation that continues to capture the imagination of over a fourth of the world’s population today.
Thanks for reading. Till the next post!
*I’ll be writing “Muhammad” instead of “Prophet Muhammad” because this blog is both for a Muslim and a non-Muslim audience. And I’m not putting in the traditional “Peace Be Upon Him” after Muhammad’s name because, although its respectful, it’s not necessary. The earliest writings on Muhammad’s life did not have “Peace Be Upon Him” written after his name – this was a tradition that was created later. I mean no disrespect in doing either of these thing. I’m just trying to make what I’m writing more accessible to all readers of this blog.